Heroin - abuse, addiction and treatment

Heroin - Chasing the Dragon

Smack, brown, gear, junk, scag. All such small names for heroin - an addictive drug which has now got a stranglehold on an estimated ten million people worldwide.

The drug has been outlawed for most of its life and abused almost since the day it was discovered in the 19 th century. It is now associated with soaring crime rates as users resort to almost anything to fund their addiction. Penalties for enjoying its company range from a fine to death in some Asian countries.

A painkilling drug made from morphine derived from the opium poppy, it can be used in a variety of ways. A user will often start by smoking it - commonly called tooting. It is also snorted, inhaled (chasing the dragon) or dissolved and injected. Injected heroin (known as mainlining) takes just five to eight seconds to "hit the spot" and is the most popular method among addicts. All three ways of administering it can lead to addiction

Heroin in its pure medicinal form is a white powder whilst street heroin is usually brown. The vast majority of it comes from the Golden Triangle - Burma , Laos and Thailand - and the Golden Crescent - Pakistan and Afghanistan . It normally starts life as 95% pure then it is cut with various powders such as glucose, chalk, talcum and caffeine. Purity levels vary greatly and neither users nor their dealers normally know how pure the heroin is.

Heroin Trafficking

Smugglers find every inventive ways to shift the drug by air, sea and land. Trafficking groups use "mules" to smuggle small amounts. They conceal the drug in their luggage, body cavities or by swallowing it wrapped up in condoms. Other methods include trucks, large shipping containers and in countries such as Pakistan , camel caravans.

Once the heroin has reached its destination the larger dealers sell to street gangs who divide the drug into smaller bags for the users.

Its use is a global phenomenon. Of the 180 million people the United Nations estimates use an illegal drug; some 9.18 million are estimated to be heroin users. There are very few countries that heroin doesn't touch. The main regions of consumption are traditionally close to the areas of production and the largest markets. The highest rates of abuse are in Iran, Pakistan, India and Europe.

In the UK, the British Crime Survey of 2001 showed that heroin use in the UK had gone up slightly since 1994 and had increased most among 16-29-year-olds - a trend linked to unemployment.

Heroin Crack Down

The challenge is how governments should deal with it. Treatment rather than punishment is the new buzz word. Heroin prescribing is available in several countries which have fairly liberal attitudes towards heroin treatment. These include the UK , Netherlands , Australia , Spain and Switzerland . The policy helps to ensure that addicts receive adequate health care and, just as importantly, clean needles so reducing the risk of HIV infection from contaminated needles on the streets.

In Germany , supervised and strictly controlled "shooting galleries" have been piloted, where addicts can go in for a health check and have access to a safe and sterile place to inject.

And Switzerland 's heroin experiment, in which a number of addicts were given regular doses of heroin under controlled conditions, has produced some dramatic results. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health says the project has led to a fall in homelessness, a reduction in illicit heroin use and an improvement in the employment rate.

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